Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

Thank you for listening to the Ask Pastor John podcast, today we have an anonymous question in the inbox, here it is: Pastor John, I have heard you say that while you were working on your doctoral dissertation about Jesus’s command to love your enemies, you read lots of scholars who argued against being motivated to love by the promises of reward. You said that this is simply unbiblical — that Jesus and the apostles motivate love all the time by encouraging us to pursue our own greater happiness. My question is: How can that be love? How is this not just using other people for our own selfish ends? Didn’t Paul say, ‘Love seeks not its own’ in 1 Corinthians 13:5?”

I think that this is one of the most important questions that can be asked in the Christian life. We really need to settle it, whether we are going to feel guilty for being motivated by the promises of joy in God’s presence that he offers us as a motivation for sacrifice in this world.

This is absolutely huge.

The Bible is full of commands to love people, at cost to ourselves. We are often called to make great sacrifices in this world, even risking our lives or intentionally laying them down for others. If the Bible offers us motivations and incentives to do this by promising that there will be great reward because of it and we think it is ethically inferior to be motivated that way, then we are going to turn away from the very strength that God offers us in the cause of love. So that is serious.

We are not dabbling on the edge of things. We are talking about the very center of motivation for Christian living. Jesus said, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” And then he adds this: “For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12–14).

Jesus didn’t add that last promise for nothing. It begins with the word “for” or “because.” You will be blessed in making sacrifices in this world to love others because you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. He intends for that to be a motivation, an incentive, a strengthening. We are not seeking payback here on the earth. That is the whole point. It is costly to love others. It is thankless, many times, to love others. The payback is later at the resurrection of the just.

And yes, I did continually run into this kind of thinking when I was working on my dissertation. I read scholar after scholar who said the opposite. I will give you one concrete example. I won’t name him. I will just give you the exact quote. And it is in his commentary on Luke 14 that I just read. And he says this: “The promise of reward for this kind of life is there as a fact. You don’t live this way for the sake of the reward. If you do that, you are not living in the new way, but the old selfish way.”

Now, I believe that is simply wrong. And not only wrong, this mistake damages the cause of love. Jesus gave that promise of reward at the resurrection of the just precisely to motivate us. If that scholar were right, we would have to work to keep the promise out of our minds so that it wouldn’t contaminate our motivation.

“You would be a fool to live in a way that gains nothing.”

But Jesus tells us to do just the opposite in Acts 20:35. Paul is talking to the elders and he quotes Jesus — one of the few places where Jesus is quoted outside the Gospels. In Acts 20:35 he says this: “We must help the weak and remember” — that is the word I am fastening on: not forgetting — “remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Now, that scholar would say, “No, no, no, no. You shouldn’t be constantly remembering that as you try to do good to people. ‘Remember that it is more blessed.’ You should forget that. Keep that out of your mind, because, yes, it is true, but it is going to contaminate your motivation if you keep remembering it.” So, I am going to go with Jesus here and not that scholar. Jesus emphasizes: Keep it in your mind. Remember, remember. It is more blessed to give than to receive. Keep the blessing in mind.

And then he said in Luke 6:35, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great.” So, in other words, just like Luke 14, don’t expect payback now. They are going to kill you now, for goodness’ sake. They are going to malign you and torture you and kill you. So, expect trouble and affliction and ingratitude in this world, but, oh, remember your reward will be great. Let that sustain you through it all.

I think that is an explanation of what Paul meant. The questioner asked about 1 Corinthians 13:5, what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 13:5, when he said, Love “does not seek its own” (NASB). It is a good, literal translation. He did not mean that love should find no pleasure in or look for any pleasure from the beautiful act of love. He meant: Don’t look for that reward by using people for material gain or advancement in this world. He didn’t mean: Ignore the promise of great reward in heaven.

And the reason we know this from 1 Corinthians 13, not just from the words of Jesus, but from the very context, two verses earlier Paul says, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). I gain nothing. I gain nothing. The whole argument is you would be a fool to live in a way that gains nothing. And that is the exact point. You gain a great reward through giving your life for other people. So, he is motivating love by long-term gain, not short-term profit, by manipulating people to get richer or to get famous or anything like that.

So, C.S. Lewis — you know this, Tony — we love this quote from his great sermon. What is the name of the sermon?

“The Weight of Glory.”

“The Weight of Glory,” yes, that is right.

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from [Immanuel] Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.

I remember the first time I read that. I thought: Oh, unbelievable. I can’t believe he is saying this. This is so right. “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” So, the crucial question is: How is this love? And I have just got two short and, I think, simple and I hope compelling answers for why is it love — to be motivated to love people, to sacrifice for people, give your life for people — for the sake of reward?

“It is a great honor to Christ to be motivated by a desire for more of him that comes through loving people.”

1) There is nothing morally inferior about looking for reward for our behavior, provided that the reward is ultimately more of Christ as the supreme joy of our souls. And the reason that is not morally inferior is that Christ is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Christ. The glory of Christ is at stake. It is simply not virtue. It is not an honor to Christ to say — I can imagine somebody trying to say this: “Well, I am going to suffer for Christ, and it makes no difference to me whether it leads to knowing and enjoying Christ better.” That is not a virtue. That is self-sufficiency cloaked as a sacrifice. It is right. It is a great honor to Christ to be motivated by a desire for more of him that comes through loving people.

2) Here is the last one. This is probably the most important. It is loving to sacrifice for others with a view to reward, wanting reward, aiming at reward if our aim is that, in being sustained by this reward of more of Christ, we win people to come with us into the reward. That is the goal. That is the goal. And we can’t do that if we don’t love the reward. There would be nothing to welcome these people into, to entice them into, if we have stopped delighting in the very reward we get through loving others. So, 1 Peter 2:12 says, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds” — and I am paraphrasing now: join you in glorifying God “on the day of visitation.”

Our motive is never — mark this — our motive is never to return good for evil so that we get the reward and they don’t. Let me say that again. My motive in returning to someone good for evil is never, I get a reward. You don’t. I want them. My motive is: In seeking to love them, I want them to join me. I want them to see in my very behavior the all-satisfying worth of Jesus Christ.

“In seeking to love others, I want them to enjoy the all-satisfying worth of Jesus Christ with me.”

So, my conclusion is never, never, never forget, but always remember, remember, that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Your reward will be great in heaven. No matter the cost of love here, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just, and a great and wonderful part of that reward will be that, in loving people like this, you will win many of them to join you in enjoying the reward.


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